Smart Cities: COVID-19’s Vaguely Silver Lining Is the Public’s New Comfort Level with Data

T. Cuzzillo

Summary Bullets:

  • COVID-19 made data part of everyday conversation, furthering the public’s data literacy.
  • The public’s enduring comfort with data should dampen some old fears about technology.

When the pandemic fades and conditions improve, the focus on COVID-19 will loosen and leave behind greater data literacy among the public. That’s good for data-driven smart cities — and it provides a more fertile environment for technology providers.

This will be a big help with a problem that cities sometimes have with advanced technology, especially artificial intelligence. Technology’s proving ground in cities is often in wildly uninformed conversation and hardened beliefs about some covert menace lurking within any technology at all.

Smart city advocates often ignore that crucial piece. Too often, they consider only technology, as if the goodness they presume it delivers is automatically accepted by those who should use it – i.e., the public. That is not a safe assumption. Acceptance of a new installation or upgrade is not to be presumed. It is unlike what occurs within organizations when IT, with upper management’s implicit blessing, rolls out a new e-mail system or accounting paradigm. The workforce usually grumbles quietly but goes along. What’s the point in resisting? It might work; we’ll get used to it; no one wants to stick their head up; and besides that, we’re too busy to care much.

In cities, resistance can come instantly and automatically, often from small groups or individuals with the time, advanced knowledge, and political savvy to mount a ferocious challenge. Even without such expertise, opponents of tech have at least fear on their side: fear of technology for its own sake, fear of privacy intrusion, and fear of upsetting what’s ‘good enough.’ Such fear is chronic and latent, and it surfaces quickly.

COVID-19’s silver lining comes from its year-long lesson in data. In 2020, most people perceived COVID-19 through data. Infection rates, hospitalization rates, fatality rates, and total fatalities showed up in popular news media by the day. Data showed up daily in colorful charts sorted by location, age, and prior health conditions. Even those who had barely noticed data before this felt drawn in. Data was suddenly part of everyday conversation. Data was the daily compass. That new comfort should endure long after the COVID-19 menace fades away.

Analytics vendors’ data literacy programs, extended to city populations, will reinforce the new comfort with data. Qlik and Tableau in particular showed strong support of public understanding of the pandemic through data. Other vendors should follow suit.

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